CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Rolling Stone magazine writer whose article about allegations of a horrific gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity was retracted testified Friday in federal court that she believed the subject of her article was credible at the time, and she rebutted assertions that she did not reach out to key figures in the young woman’s story.
For more than two hours Friday, the jury of eight women and two men listened to an interview journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely conducted in a Charlottesville restaurant in September 2014 with “Jackie,” the U-Va. student whose now-discredited accusations threw the campus and the nation into an uproar over sexual assault at colleges and universities.
During the taped interview, Erdely told Jackie that her story was about “party rape” and that there is research to support that “fraternity members are more likely to rape people.” Later, as she tried to encourage Jackie to name the fraternity in the story, Erdely told her: “I feel like if we can get these guys, we should. . . . We have a chance to do something important and make a difference.”
Played in court, the interview was interrupted intermittently by Erdely’s attorney, Scott Sexton, who asked her to explain her thinking at the time.
When Jackie mentioned that she got a tattoo to commemorate surviving the rape, Sexton asked his client about it.
“It was a real tattoo,” Erdely told the court. “She wanted to memorialize on her body her sexual assault.” In addition to a feminist symbol and a rose, the tattoo included a single word, Erdely said: “Unbreakable.”
Did it ever occur to you that someone would get a tattoo on her body to commemorate an event that hadn’t happened?” her attorney asked. “Never,” Erdely said.
Jackie related a series of detailed stories and anecdotes about friends, parents, boyfriends, roommates and teachers that all led her to think that Jackie was reliable, Erdely said.
“The way she tells stories, in general, she’s so conscientious with her details,” she said. When Jackie told her about the nightmares she suffered after the alleged rape, Erdely believed her. “I felt the horror of that nightmare,” she said. “I felt scared for her.”
Erdely’s attorney pointed out that some critics of Erdely’s reporting have said she never called Jackie’s mother out of fear that the “story would blow up.” He asked her if she called Jackie’s mother.
“I did,” Erdely said, noting that she called a cell number Jackie provided and a home phone listing she found on her own. “Many times. I left a lot of voice mails. She never called back.”
Erdely testified this week that she regretted not trying to contact three of Jackie’s friends who met Jackie on campus the night of the alleged attack. Those friends have said the article misrepresented the conversation and scene. Jackie also refused to give Erdely the name of her purported attackers. The name she gave to friends was fictional, and the photos she shared were pictures of one of Jackie’s high school classmates.
Erdely also testified about her repeated efforts to contact Nicole Eramo, the U-Va. administrator who is suing Erdely and Rolling Stone for defamation. Erdely had arranged to meet with Eramo during her visit to campus in September 2014. The interview was quashed at the last minute, which Erdely says “bewildered” her.
U-Va. was “not going to let me speak to the person who was most knowledgeable about sexual assault on campus,” Erdely said. “I felt they were stonewalling me.”
Erdely did interview U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan but testified that she believed Sullivan didn’t fully answer her questions and that Eramo could have better addressed them. When asked whether she had ever endorsed the idea that her article was talking about Eramo personally rather than the school generally — a key point in the defamation lawsuit — Erdely’s answer was succinct: “No, never.”
Questions arose about Erdely’s story soon after it published, and articles in The Washington Post called into doubt many of its main claims. Rolling Stone later retracted the story after Charlottesville Police determined that the allegations were unfounded and the Columbia Journalism School determined it was deeply flawed.